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Johnny Depp as Dillinger

Movie Info


Older teenagers and adults


R for gangster violence and some language.


Gangster Drama


July 1, 2009


Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Channing Tatum, David Wenham


Michael Mann


Universal Pictures



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Public Enemies

Movieguide Magazine - Public Enemies is a very good gangster movie, but it is not an excellent one. It is more of a realistic historical drama about Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger and his nemesis, FBI Agent Melvin Purvis. The movie’s realistic tone is not always matched by historical accuracy, however. Although parts of the movie are historically accurate, the movie changes the sequences of events in Dillinger’s criminal career to make him appear more sympathetic than he actually was.

The movie stars Johnny Depp in the role of Dillinger. It opens with Dillinger and his gang breaking three of their buddies out of the state penitentiary in Illinois. Although Dillinger’s criminal mentor dies during the escape, the gang soon begins robbing banks like Jesse James used to rob trains.

In Chicago, Dillinger’s base of operations, Dillinger woos hatcheck girl Billie Frechette, the love of his life. He makes no secret of his criminal avocation, but Billie falls for his charms anyway.

Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, is concerned about the Robin Hood reputation Dillinger seems to cultivate. For example, Dillinger makes it a point not to take the bank customers’ money. This helps him build a following among the people, who have grown to hate the bankers. Hoover names Dillinger Public Enemy No. 1 and promotes handsome Agent Melvin Purvis to snare Dillinger.

This begins a contest of wills as Purvis and his men risk their lives, and the lives of innocent civilians, to bring Dillinger and his gang to justice. Dillinger and his cohorts, who include the psychopathic killer Baby Face Nelson, prove to be more elusive than anyone imagined.

Some may be disappointed that Public Enemies does not have the raw energy of some of the better-made gangster movies, such as James Cagney’s movies during the 1930s or even Bonnie & Clyde. The filmmakers seem to be aiming for a more realistic portrayal. Even so, this makes the movie seem too subdued.

Also, the movie changes around some of the events in Dillinger’s life to make him appear more sympathetic. For example, though he helped plan the escape that opens the movie, Dillinger was already in jail in Ohio when it took place. After his buddies escaped from the state pen, killing two guards, three of them helped spring Dillinger out of the Ohio jail, killing the sheriff in the process. Thus, Dillinger and his gang were already responsible for killing three people by the time he returns in the movie to Chicago and meets Billie (in actuality, Dillinger apparently had met Billie sometime before he was arrested in Ohio, or so the real story goes).

The movie also changes the timelines involving the deaths of Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. It shows Purvis killing Floyd before he starts chasing Dillinger, and Purvis killing Nelson during a famous shootout with the Dillinger gang in Wisconsin. In reality, Purvis did not lead the final hunt and killing of Floyd until after Dillinger was dead, and he had nothing to do whatsoever in the death of Nelson, who was killed in a shootout with four other FBI agents a month after Floyd died.

Public Enemies depicts J. Edgar Hoover as an ambitious, publicity-seeking bureaucrat. He tells Purvis to use harsher methods when Purvis tells him, after a couple unsuccessful run-ins with Dillinger and his gang, that the FBI agents are no match for such hardened criminals. Eventually, apparently, Hoover decided to force Purvis out of the FBI after Purvis was publicly extolled for getting Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, and leading the manhunt that eventually got Baby Face Nelson.

All of that aside, the movie accurately depicts Dillinger releasing the hostages he sometimes took during his bank robberies. It also accurately shows that Purvis did not really fire the shot that killed Dillinger. It also shows truthfully that Purvis and his men accidentally killed two civilians when they had surrounded a Wisconsin resort where Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and the gang had holed up.

In the end, Public Enemies depicts Dillinger as more sympathetic than he was, and depicts Melvin Purvis more accurately as a policeman with some flaws (there is an allegation elsewhere [not in the movie] that Purvis ordered an officer to kill Pretty Boy Floyd after Floyd had been only wounded severely in a shootout). Ultimately, the movie relishes Dillinger’s rebellion while honoring the integrity, caring, and determination that Purvis brought to his job. The movie implies, however, that Purvis became tormented by the fact that Dillinger was shot dead rather than arrested.

The violence in Public Enemies is not as bloody and graphic as it could have been. Also, there is minimal foul language, only a flash of nudity in one scene and only implied sexual relations between the gangsters and their women. Still, the movie is appropriately rated R, so extreme caution is advised.

Address comments to:
Jeffrey R. Immelt, Chairman/CEO, General Electric
Jeff Zucker, President/CEO, NBC Universal
Ron Meyer, President/COO, Universal Studios
Marc Shmuger, Chairman
David Linde, Co-Chairman
Universal Pictures
100 Universal City Plaza
Universal City, CA 91608-1085
Phone: (818) 777-1000
Web site:

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NOTE from Dr. Ted Baehr, publisher of Movieguide Magazine. For more information from a Christian perspective, order the latest Movieguide Magazine by calling 1-800-899-6684(MOVI) or visit our website at Movieguide is dedicated to redeeming the values of Hollywood by informing parents about today's movies and entertainment and by showing media executives and artists that family-friendly and even Christian-friendly movies do best at the box office year in and year out. Movieguide now offers an online subscription to its magazine version, at The magazine, which comes out 25 times a year, contains many informative articles and reviews that help parents train their children to be media-wise consumers.

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